The Killers are one of the most frustrating bands to write about because of their precipitous decline in musical quality over the past decade. Somehow blessed with a talent for creating both new-wave and Springsteen-esque hooks, they burst onto the scene during the height during the garage rock/post-punk revival of the mid 00’s and found a wide following as an new-wave alternative to the more straight up indie rock offerings of the time. Their first two albums (Hot Fuss and Sam’s Town) have since gone down as some of the most rewarding efforts of their era. However, just like the garage rock movement, the Killers struggled to find a direction as the decade turned and musical tastes shifted. Caught in-between new wave and rock-revival, the Killers ended up splitting the difference – favoring synths and spacey motifs on their 2008 album Day and Age, while going for a more anthemic/arena rock approach on their last studio album, 2012’s muddy and over-the-top Battle Born. This musical posturing left fans like myself wondering bluntly: “where is this band going?”
Another year passes, another ‘meh’ Christmas single, another solo project from one of the members, and another year with the general feeling that their next studio album might be a make or break moment for the band. Ten years removed from their last true “great” album, and five years on from Battle Born, the Killers released their fifth effort entitled Wonderful Wonderful last week, and at the very least, it marks a step in the right direction. Luckily, the soul-sucking and “USDA: certified lean” lead single “The Man,” (which I reviewed in depth a few months ago) is the outlier, not the rule here as its one of only a couple of songs that blatantly attempts to garner radio airplay. Surprisingly, the majority of Wonderful Wonderful relies more on atmosphere and electronic textures than straight up pop or cheesy “lighter in the air” hooks, which is a welcome and refreshing change for the band.
Like almost every Killers album, there are actually a number of good songs on here, and it turns out that Wonderful Wonderful is at its best when the band goes back to what has worked for them in the past. The glimmering “Rut” and “Some Kind of Love” scale back the blatant pomp and circumstance of the band’s Battle Born era, while “Out of My Mind” harkens back to the band’s Hot Fuss days via its dominant synth line and guitar solo. Arguably the album’s best track, “Tyson vs. Douglas” could easily be mistaken for a track from the back half of Sam’s Town. Lyrically centering on a 1990 boxing match where heavy favorite Mike Tyson lost to Buster Douglas, the song not only provides a nice break from the light atmospheric techniques of the tracks that surround it, but it is also a welcome sign that the band hasn’t completely lost their way.
But, like every Killers album since Sam’s Town, this isn’t an album that’s solid front to back. In the true Killers style, we’re treated a fair share of clunkers. Besides the cheap radio ploys of “The Man” and “Run For Cover,” “The Calling,” which features actor Woody Harrelson reading a verse from the Bible (let’s just focus on the movies, Woody) ends up doing nothing more than obligatorily bringing religion into the mix, whilst successfully derailing the album’s pacing and ruins any vibe and good will which had been built up over the previous tracks. Last track “Have All the Songs Been Written?,” which was inspired by a conversation between Flowers and Bono during a bout of writer’s block, uncomfortably shatters the fourth wall with lead singer Brandon Flowers repeatedly telling the listener that he “just needs one to get through to you,” while acknowledging his past mistakes and apologizing for them. It’s a nice gesture, Brandon, but, at this point, maybe focusing on making a more cohesive effort rather than straining to find the next “Mr. Brightside” or “When You Were Young” would be a better use of everyone’s time.
While it yearns to be as good as its title would suggest, Wonderful Wonderful is a decent, but overall welcome effort from a band that desperately needed to take a step in the right direction for its own sake. Unfortunately, despite its good intentions, it still ends up falling well short of the band’s potential and expectations. Perhaps what is most frustrating about Wonderful Wonderful (besides its joke worthy title) is that I’m not convinced that it represents a turning point of any sort for the Killers. More than likely, they’ll tread water – release a new album every few years, come out with their mandatory Christmas songs, focus on their side projects, and tour the world on the back of their best songs. That may be fine for them, and it seems to be enough to keep their fans and most critics satiated. Hopefully, they’ll be able to build on what they’ve done here and create something truly great down the road, else we’ll be taking out the shovels once again, ready to dig.